For starters, male and female brain chemistry is very different. Brain chemistry is part of human physiology so just like men having different muscle mass and different reproductive organs, our brains are "programmed" to do different things as well. Now, BEFORE we get going on this little ride, repeat after me: "Different is not deficient." Very good. Keep saying that to yourself, because in some very important physiological ways, it will APPEAR that men have the upper hand...I said APPEAR to emphasize that APPEARANCES can be deceiving.
Men have what psychologists call "emotional containment." Emotional containment is the ability to compartmentalize emotions, as opposed to women, who internalize emotions because, there's simply no place to "put" them and still function at a high level. Why don't women have this nifty little brain feature? Because if we did, girls, we wouldn't care about maintaining a cohesion in not only our own lives, but in the lives of our families. And by cohesion I mean...you guessed it, CONNECTIONS. EVERYTHING is connected for us gals, and it has to be...otherwise, little Johnny might not get appropriate school clothes at the appropriate time; and Suzy junior will have unkempt hair and mismatched clothes. Women's sense of connectivity is what makes living a full, robust life possible--not so much for us, but the other people we are connected to. We make everyone's success possible, which is why it's sometimes difficult to find time to give ourselves a hand in that area. So yes, part of the downfall of that necessary connection is that women tend to nurture others before themselves, often deferring their own needs to help others. Now don't get all upset, ladies, there are plenty of us out there who do it all, of course...it's just harder. It's easy to be successful in almost everything you do when you don't feel that sense of connection. BUT, to be successful AND deal with all the emotional stuff simultaneously...ladies, we are practically gods!
HOWEVER, there is a down side. Because we internalize emotions, especially those of us with Type-A personalities, we are more vulnerable to pretty much everything...a host of physical and mental health risks that jeopardize the cohesion we bring to everyday life, not to mention our very lives. And the kicker is, because women's physiology has influenced our social behavior (ie, being the nurturers, taking a backseat to other's needs), there's little sympathy available. Society takes the inherent stress-level associated with internalization for granted, and by extension, women, too.
All of the above is just context...the power of which can illuminate ANY problem, anytime, anywhere. Though it may seem natural to assume that women and men have different (though not deficient) physiologies, it's not always so obvious when you're in a male-female relationship. The men have to apply more compassionate wisdom to women's social positioning as a means of being mindful, careful not to ABUSE those natural tendencies. But ultimately, ladies and gentlemen, much of the issue can be resolved through a better understanding of how men and women speak.
Deborah Tannen, a professor of Linguistics at Georgetown, is world-renown for her work in how men and women communicate. How we communicate comes from many places, like the examples we had growing up, our birth order, our familial and ethnic culture, even our geography! But the way in which we communicate comes from the same place--our psychology.
Men come from a psychological platform supported by emotional containment and therefore, seem more calm, more rational, less, well, emotional. Because of higher testosterone levels, men tend to be action-oriented which can mean decisive or aggressive, depending on your perspective. Without the clouding of messy connections, men can also be more resolute, giving the illusion of clarity. When translated verbally to women, male communication can often be perceived by women as awkward or cruel, even vacant. At least in terms of the communication, and not the individual male, appearances can be deceiving.
Women, because everything is connected, appear less decisive, which can be mistakenly viewed as weakness. Because female brain chemistry trends toward nurturing, women tend to talk more--actually use more words--in efforts to provide a sense of comfort. Women, for whom emotional containment does not exist, must verbally express to dissapte any negativity--a biological imperative. This kind of outward emotionality is also perceived as weakness (mainly because society's shared perspective originates from male perspective). Women's sense of connection is why violence among women is such a rarity, and if you're sitting in your chair saying, "Well, that's not true...," look up the statistics for how many women commit violent crimes and compare it to the male stats. According to one 2003 study, men are ten times more likely to commit violent crimes than women. However this is exactly why we started with the "Different is not deficient" mantra. Doing things differently based on physiological prompts is simply what it is. That's why using intellect to negotiate such difference in a non-judgemental way is as much an imperative as women's need for verbal expression.
In Tannen's books That's Not What I Meant! (Ballantine 1986) and her global best-seller translated in 30 languages, You Just Don't Understand (Ballantine 1990; Quill 2001), Tannen uses a strict linguistic approach to explaining the verbal cues and prompts in the way men and women use language, contributing to the "gaps" we discussed earlier. It's a very interesting way of explaining those gaps. I did socio-cultural research on women with cancer earlier in the decade and found Tannen's work compelling in even that area, where the women were patients dealing with mostly male doctors. As a woman and a rhetortician, I've become much more aware of how I use verbal commuication. Most of the time, it's not something we think about very often, and you don't have to--especially not in your own home. But professionally, and with my doctors, and with acquaintances, I keep in mind my predisposition to deference and apology--in other words, always wanting to make everyone else feel comfortable through language. But before I became aware of this, and even still to this day, it can sometimes be very difficult to have effective communication with the males in my life. Because, though I'm aware, with emotional containment, it's not always something the other parties know about, or frankly, care about. So while the linguistics, or verbal cues and prompts, are important, it all goes back to physiology.
When your wife doesn't appreciate you making those travel plans without her or when your husband doesn't mention that new dress or your haircut or the clean kitchen, just know that your spouse is not being inconsiderate or ignoring you. By virtue of individual physiology, we are either predisposed to being connected or disconnected. The caveat is understanding that disconnection (or connection) is not an excuse for wrong behavior. Intellect is the defining factor in either case...which is where Tannen's work really lives. Recognizing the disconnect and then communicating appropriately is very possible. And by those same means, applying compassionate wisdom when that disconnect isn't bridged verbally, or connectivity isn't appropriately acknowledged, is equally important.
It's confusing, I know. Because, while that approach might be effective with a sibling, spouse, parent, or child--what about friendships, professional relationships, and acquaintances? You expect more in those areas and generally speaking, social interactions (communications) are more mindful outside of the personal sphere. And yet, there are always those moments where our physiology and resulting psychology contribute to a verbal chasm. Of course, in any more formal, less personal, social sphere, gendered physiology isn't always the culprit when it comes to miscommunication.
Ultimately, THINKING before we SPEAK is necessary in ANY relationship. The importance of intellectually recognizing and acknowledging an individual's personal context is key to effective comunication AND more meaningful relationships, whether personal or otherwise.
Until next time, dearest readers....